1. Win over Illinois a reminder of what this MSU team can be
EAST LANSING – Saturday’s 88-80 win over Illinois demonstrated something we already knew about Michigan State’s basketball team — that on a given day, they’re capable of playing with just about anyone in the sport. Capable of beating just about anyone. Still, it’s good for them to be reminded of that. Perhaps good, too, for those suffering along with them to see it once in a while, as well.
Because while the Illini have their warts — mostly they’re missing a true point guard, which bit them late in the game Saturday — the Illini, physically, are as menacing as any team in college basketball. They’re probably built for a deep tournament run more than MSU is. Although if guards win the day in college hoops, you’d take the day we saw from A.J. Hoggard and Tyson Walker.
Saturday’s win — while boosted by the help of an energetic home crowd — was another glimpse at something close to this team’s ceiling. This was a great college basketball game, high level everywhere but the officiating. MSU showed a resolve we’ve seen time and time again over the past month-plus — but didn’t Tuesday at Minnesota. The goats of that defeat, Hoggard and Malik Hall, were nearly as good as they’ve ever been on Saturday, Hall with 22 points on 7-for-9 shooting and five rebounds, and Hoggard with 23 points and five assists. Notably, they combined to go 19-for-22 at the free-throw line.
Tyson Walker looked like his usual self, even while occasionally wincing through a groin injury, with 19 points and big baskets at key times. Jaden Akins hit a couple 3s and played well early. That foursome all played 32 minutes or more. If not for Akins’ foul trouble, it would have been 35 or more for all them. In the big games, in games when the matchups are hard, those four allow MSU to go toe-to-toe and give the Spartans a chance. We saw that again Saturday.
Carson Cooper, who played a sound 23 minutes, with five rebounds and three assists, held up nicely in the paint, an important showing for him and for that position.
This was a game the Spartans didn’t need to have, but, man, it helps. At 15-9 overall and 7-6 in the Big Ten, with another quality win that’ll hold up, they’ve still got a chance to get as high as a 6 seed in the NCAA tournament. And, not that they were ever really a bubble team, but this keeps that discussion at bay.
2. Hoggard’s response, including shoving Izzo, deserves applause
If A.J. Hoggard is going to get ripped for his performance down the stretch against Minnesota, he deserves praise for his response Saturday against Illinois. He was terrific — his floor game and decisions, the timing of some of his best plays, how he pushed the ball and his temperament in dealing with Tom Izzo.
Izzo knows he can get into Hoggard and that Hoggard can deal with him even on his harshest terms. That’s part of the reason the relationship between them works. Izzo calling him out repeatedly after Tuesday’s loss to the Gophers didn’t rattle Hoggard a bit. And when Izzo came after Jaden Akins on the court after Akins was called for a technical foul for turning toward the Illinois bench after a made 3, Hoggard shoved Izzo back toward the bench. That’s leadership. That’s being the head of the snake.
So is, when the game is getting away from you, hitting a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 72-69 and, a minute later, with the score the same, driving at the 6-foot-10 guy defending you and scoring over him while drawing a foul and then tying the game with a free throw. And coming up with a steal (right after a Tyson Walker steal) in the final two minutes when Illinois is beginning to look rattled.
That’s why you ride Hoggard, for better or worse. He’s the only point guard on this roster who’s doing that this season. He’s a difference-maker, for better or worse.
Hoggard finished with 23 points, hit 11 of 12 free throws, dished five assists, had two steals.
He set up Akins for a trailing 3, Coen Carr for a fast-break bucket and Jaxon Kohler for layup that became free throws. He scored in the lane and didn’t try to score much from outside of it — just twice, including an important 3 to bring the Spartans back to within 72-69. He was on the floor and disruptive defensively. Hoggard was just really good. And MSU’s offense and overall performance reflected it. He’s always going to be MSU’s best chance this season, no matter his most maddening moments. Saturday, we saw the best of him.
3. Kohler shows his role on this team can expand
Jaxon Kohler needed a game like this. And perhaps MSU’s coaches needed to see him have it.
The best part about Kohler’s performance Saturday was not his offensive moves, but instead his offensive rebounds — two of them, both put-backs off MSU’s misses that led to four points, including a tip-in on a Hoggard miss 3 when Illinois led by eight in the first half and things were getting dicey.
Kohler battled for post position and then spun to box out. He did this repeatedly and effectively. He was sound defensively. And, while he’s yet to find his rhythm with his shot — he missed a baseline driving layup and two free throws — he was effective playing at power forward alongside Carson Cooper and more effective than Mady Sissoko at center. Illinois is a tough matchup for Sissoko (we saw that in Champaign, too), but Kohler (who had just returned from injury for the first meeting), showed he can be an answer for the Spartans.
He played 13 minutes Saturday. It felt like more. It was a good step for him.
Contact Graham Couch at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.
First appeared on www.lansingstatejournal.com